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How American slavery led to the birth of Liberia: in 1820, a private American group established Liberia as a colony for freed U.S. slaves. But it was troubled from the start.

On January 25, 1851, Edward Blyden's ship dropped anchor just off the coast of Liberia, For the 19-year-old seminary student, it was the end of a weeks-long sea voyage and a kind of homecoming. To the very continent that Blyden's ancestors had left in chains, he was now returning as a free man. He could hardly contain his excitement as he wrote to a friend:
 You can easily imagine the delight with
 which I gazed upon the land of my
 forefathers--of those mysterious races
 of men. It is really a beautiful country.
 ... The land is exceeding prolific--teeming
 with everything necessary for
 the subsistence of man.

Along with beautiful scenery, Blyden was looking out over one of America's boldest social experiments. Liberia had been founded in 1820 as a colony for freed American slaves. A group called the American Colonization Society had purchased land on Africa's west coast to establish Liberia. Between 1820 and 1865, the society transported at least 12,000 people there. Shipping free blacks back to Africa seemed a sensible idea to the society's white founders and to some blacks, such as Edward Blyden. But the many controversies and problems that nagged at Liberia kept it from ever becoming the freed slaves' promised land.


By the early 1800s, slavery had died out in the Northern U.S., but it thrived in the South thanks to the region's labor-hungry plantations. Over time some slaves were set free. Others bought their freedom.

This growing class of society-free blacks--troubled many slavery supporters, who often subscribed to views similar to Thomas Jefferson's. The third U.S. President and author of the Declaration of Independence believed slavery was a necessary evil that would one day die out. Yet he saw no place for free blacks in U.S. society when that day came. He once wrote that blacks were inferior and that, "when freed, [they are] to be removed beyond the reach of mixture."

One answer, for people who agreed with Jefferson, was to send African-Americans to Africa. If the thousands of free blacks already living in the U.S. could be successfully settled there, the thought went, then millions could later follow. Other whites, more sympathetic to the plight of blacks, thought sending them to Africa would allow them to live in freedom and without prejudice.

Against this backdrop, the American Colonization Society, a private group, was founded in 1816. It attracted luminaries including Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, mad Francis Scott Key, as well as clergymen and philanthropists. It won support from slaveholders--such as Jefferson and the fifth U.S. President, James Monroe--and some antislavery activists.


Some blacks were indeed eager to leave the U.S., but their main motivation was to flee racial hostility. Black abolitionist Martin R. Delany argued for emigration in 1852, saying:
 In the United States, among the whites,
 their color is made, by law and custom,
 the mark of distinction and superiority;
 while the color of the blacks is a badge
 of degradation.

Still, the idea of colonization angered many blacks and some white abolitionists, like William Lloyd Garrison. They saw it as a way to bolster slavery by getting rid of free blacks--among the few political allies of the slaves. They also believed sending blacks back to Africa made no more sense than shipping English-Americans back to England. As black abolitionist David Walker wrote in 1829:
 America is more our country than it is
 the whites'. We have enriched it with our
 blood and tears ... and they will drive
 us from our property and homes, which
 we have earned with our blood?

Nevertheless, the society pushed ahead with its plan. From local tribal chiefs, the group purchased a 36-mile-long strip of land next to present-day Sierra Leone for the equivalent of $300 in trade goods. (Some accounts say the purchase was made through intimidation and threats.) The colony's name was taken from the Latin phrase for "land of the free," and its capital, Monrovia, was named after President Monroe. Hundreds of well-wishers came to see off the ship Elizabeth on January 31, 1820, as it left New York with Liberia's first 86 black colonists and three white agents from the society.


Disease soon proved to be the colony's most dangerous foe. All three agents and 22 of the original colonists died of malaria, yellow fever, or other tropical illnesses. Between 1820 and 1843, disease killed about 22 percent of all new arrivals. Also, tensions quickly arose between the surviving colonists and their leaders. Liberia's early Governors--all white men--were picked by the society and ruled autocratically.

After several near rebellions, the society finally appointed Joseph J. Roberts, a free black from Virginia, as Governor in 1841. But the push for self-rule continued, and on July 26, 1847 Liberia proclaimed its independence, becoming the first black-run republic in modern Africa. Roberts was elected its President. Liberia's flag and constitution were modeled on those of the U.S.

Unfortunately, instability persisted. Ironically, Liberia's settlers--many of whom had once been in bondage--often discriminated against the native Africans, whom they considered uncivilized. The natives were excluded from voting and kept out of government. Even the country's Declaration of Independence asserted that "we the people of Liberia were originally inhabitants of the United States of North America." These practices frequently led to fighting between the settlers--known as "Americo-Liberians"--and the 16 ethnic African tribes that lived in the region.

During the 1800s, this turmoil discouraged prospective immigrants. By the 1890s, even Liberia's most fervent boosters could see that their experiment had largely failed.

Edward Blyden, who became a successful writer and speaker, mourned the promise for which his country had once stood. "We are keeping these lands, we say, for our brethren in America," he wrote. "But they are not willing to come...."

The "Americo-Liberians" governed until 1980, when a bloody coup by native Africans helped trigger Liberia's current turmoil. But the seeds had been planted from its founding.

quick fact

LIBERIA comes from the Latin phrase meaning "land of the free"


Liberia became the first Independent black-run country in modern Africa



* Did the American Colonization Society found Liberia for selfish reasons?

* Does the U.S. role in the founding of Liberia mean that today's Americans have a special obligation to help the people of that country?


To help students understand the origins of Liberia, specifically how Americans, eager to rid the U.S. of freed slaves, created the country as a home for them, and how those early settlers dominated the indigenous people.


CRITICAL THINKING/: Address some of the key elements in the article:

* Many whites thought the move would bolster slavery. If freed slaves stayed, might they have disrupted slavery in America? If so, how? (The realization that free blacks could fend for themselves probably did have an effect on the antislavery movement.)

* Domination of freed slaves over Africans. What qualities or experiences might the American blacks have had that enabled them to dominate Africans? Why might local tribes have resisted American culture?

Why would the American blacks, who had been subjected to an often brutal class system in the United States, then turn around and impose a class system on the native Africans?

DEBATE 1: Split the class into two teams. Direct attention to the observation of black abolitionist David Walker, who said America belonged more to blacks than whites because blacks "enriched it with our blood and tears." Have each side advance arguments supporting and opposing Walker's statement.

DEBATE 2: Again, split the class into two teams. Ask them to take sides on this statement: "The U.S. should grant special immigrant status to Liberians who can prove they are ancestors of the original freed slave settlers."

CRITICAL THINKING/WRITING: Have students write a brief overview of Liberia, comparing the optimism of Edward Blyden with reality. Students can write a few paragraphs in which they imagine that Blyden is alive again. What would he say about his dreams of Liberia? What might he say to today's Liberians if he could walk among them?

WEB WATCH: See Library of Congress illustrations and background on the American Colonization Society at See also the Web Watch entries in lesson three, above.

Upfront QUIZ 4

DIRECTIONS: Circle correct letter or fill in the blank.

1. Which of the following organizations established a program to settle freed African-American slaves in Liberia?

a African-American Resettlement Society

b American Colonization Society

c American Freedom Society

d American-African Friendship Society

2. What is the main reason slavery remained a fixture in the South long after it had faded away in the North?

a Southern religious beliefs required slavery's continuance.

b Local laws required it.

c Slaves were needed to run Southern factories.

d Plantations relied heavily on slave labor.

3. President --, author of the Declaration of Independence, was a prominent promoter of the movement to send free blacks to Liberia.

4. The capital city of Liberia was named for President --, a prominent supporter of the movement to send free blacks to Africa.

5. The main reason that freed slaves agreed to go to Liberia was to

a learn about the culture of their ancestors.

b flee racial hostility in the U.S.

c pursue the wealth they believed existed in Liberia's natural resources.

d prepare the way for the millions of African-Americans who had agreed to settle in Liberia.

6. Settlers in Liberia encountered two major problems--diseases and

a land unsuitable for farming.

b squabbles with European settlers over property rights.

c bad relations with native Africans living in the area.

d a cut in promised funding from the United States.

7. Liberia's earliest Governors were

a appointed by the President of the United States.

b elected by the African-American immigrants.

c a mix of natives and African-American settlers.

d whites who accompanied the settlers to Liberia.


1. (b) American Colonization Society

2. (d) Plantations relied on slave labor.

3. Thomas Jefferson

4. James Monroe

5. (b) flee racial hostility in the U.S.

6. (c) bad relations with native Africans living in the area.

7. (d) whites who accompanied the settlers to Liberia.
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Title Annotation:History
Author:Price, Sean
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:6LIBE
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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